INDIO, Calif. — In the sprawl of desert scrub brush and freeway ramps that is this industrial part of Indio, the sun burns brightly in a barren office park. Light and shadows flash off the scorched asphalt, and the landscape is a spare palette of dusty brown, faded green and gray.
Inside one tucked-away structure, however, artist Phillip K. Smith III is preparing to paint the sky red.
Or pink. Or green, depending.
"Welcome to the different sides of my brain," Smith says, leading the way through his studio, which looks like an airplane hangar and is filled with elements of a light installation premiering at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.
One of the studio's four rooms resembles an architect's office — clean and bright, with colorful drawings and sculptural models crowding tabletops and assistants tinkering on computers. There's a "dirty workspace," an airy gallery space, and a "semi-clean build space," which conjures high school shop class, complete with power tools, cable cords and sheets of laser-cut acrylic.
This is where Smith, 41, created his internationally known installation, "Lucid Stead," which lighted up the Joshua Tree desert for two weekends last October. His worn, wooden shack, tricked out with mirrored slats and multicolored LEDs, stood alone in a dusty clearing where it shimmered in the sunlight and glowed orange, pink and blue under the moon.
About 400 people trekked to ogle "Lucid Stead" in person, but it created an even bigger splash online. Images of the shack became an Internet sensation, with a video garnering more than 300,000 views on lucidstead.com. It catapulted the artist to a new level of recognition. The gallery that represents Smith, Royale Projects in Palm Desert, received phone calls from collectors worldwide, and magazine pieces followed in Italy, India and Germany, among other places.
"It's amazing to have the world embrace your project," says Smith, ruggedly handsome in a black T-shirt and faded jeans this afternoon, his close-cropped hair graying at the temples. "But the blunt reality is: Nothing changes. I still gotta come back here and make art — which is what I want to be doing."
Smith's newest project, a much larger and more ambitious light installation called "Reflection Field," opens to the public at the Coachella festival Friday. The piece, which was commissioned by Coachella producer Goldenvoice, will sit in the center of the Empire Polo fields throughout the festival as Queens of the Stone Age, Pharrell Williams and Lorde rock out nearby.
The installation is composed of five sculptural elements — four enormous squares and a towering rectangle standing nearly two stories high — in a grassy circle 100 feet in diameter. The five "volumes of light," as Smith refers to them, are fully mirrored on the outside and will reflect their desert surroundings by day: lithe palm trees, a ring of mountains and curious visitors. At night the LEDs will glow from within, creating dramatic light-play that will drown bystanders in color.
A computer program that Smith and his team created will time the color progressions so that the reflections from the individual structures blend together in strategic ways. (This "color merging" is a key factor that sets Smith's new work apart from "Lucid Stead.") At the same time, the multicolored hues will play off of the natural environment, bleeding into the earth and sky.
"I can fade [one screen] from blue into the red of the sunset, so that it disappears into the sky. Or I can paint the sky green and then fade it down into the green of the grass," Smith says. "It plays between these two worlds of projected light and the reality of the environmental light and the surrounding world."
Exploring color theory, light and shadows, form, perception and technology, Smith's work is in the tradition of California's Light and Space artists, a movement that took hold in the mid-'60s and '70s. James Turrell and Robert Irwin are touchstones, Smith says. He's also been influenced by earlier artists such as minimalist Sol LeWitt and sculptor Constantin Brancusi.
"I'm inspired by their purity of form and search for truth," he says.
"Reflection Field" is a natural evolution of "Lucid Stead," which is now inactive, though the shack, minus the LED applications, still stands in the desert. The new work also draws on Smith's earlier, much smaller light works on display at Royale Projects, as well as a solo show he had earlier this year at the Museum of Art and History in Lancaster.
Coachella has always featured art, mostly large-scale works by Southern California artists, since its inception in 1999. Goldenvoice said the festival substantially increased the art component in 2011, when it commissioned original works. The company wouldn't say how much it's investing in art this year, but festival art director Paul Clemente says the budget has gone up the last two years. The LEDs alone in Smith's installation cost about $800,000.
This is the first year artists are being featured on the festival lineup poster along with the bands.
"It's nice to be on the same bill as Arcade Fire," Smith jokes.
"We want to explore ideas that maybe other festivals haven't gone the distance on," says Clemente, who helps select the art and who saw "Lucid Stead" in person last year. "Art will continue to be more of an emphasis as we move forward."
Smith's "Reflection Field" won't be the largest installation at Coachella this year, Clemente says. Artist and designer Keith Greco created a series of 18 structures, including a lighthouse, an A-frame building and a house built out of popsicle sticks. A 50-foot animatronic robot by Patrick Shearn of the L.A. art collective Poetic Kinetics will roam the polo grounds.
Smith's installation represents the direction in which Coachella wants to head, Clemente says — artists whose work is worthy of a museum show. Plus, the artist has roots here.
"When you grow up in the desert, it's in your blood," Smith says. His grandfather and uncle inspired his interest "in tinkering and making," he says, and he went on to study fine arts and architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design. After about a decade living in New York and Boston after school, Smith moved back to Palm Desert, where he now lives and is "married with dog," in part because he missed the natural light here.
"I was at a point where I felt like I could start to produce art that really mattered," he says, "and I wanted to do it in a place that I cared about, and that was the desert."
Smith has created more than a dozen large-scale sculptures across the country, including a 50-foot-plus fiberglass piece, "Inhale/Exhale," for the University of La Verne in 2009. With more than 200,000 people streaming through the festival over the two weekends, he's optimistic the images of "Reflection Field" that visitors snap will go viral again — and that's part of his vision for the project.
"Everyone's gonna have a phone with them. There are infinite spots where different people are gonna find different things," he says. "I'd love that people begin to talk about light and color and space in an excitable way again."
After Coachella, Smith says he could imagine "Reflection Field" re-erected in a number of types of art spaces. But first, he says, "I just want it to live and breathe at Coachella."
"I'd like people to perceive my work as they do the clouds — something that is looked at as universally beautiful," he says. "No one ever looks at the clouds and says, 'That's ugly.' But also, everybody sees something different."